Since the time our Constitution was written, the political sphere has changed enormously.
Australian federal politicians had no staff until 1944. Since then, we have seen both a huge increase in staffers and a shift in the type of people employed.
An article by Adam Creighton in June 2014 made some revealing observations. Whilst the figures are two years old, they give a sense of scale and are no doubt even higher now.
The government of South Australia (population 1.7 million) has more personal staff than that of Britain, which oversees Europe’s second largest economy (population of 62 million). Australian federal and state governments have in total more than 10 times more.
Since 1984 the number of federal personal staff has more than doubled to 590, including about 420 for ministers and 88 for the opposition (which is traditionally given 21 per cent of whatever the government has). Electorate staff (who earn between $62,000 and $85,000 before superannuation and allowances) number about 925.
Keep in mind, the federal government can already seek advice from more than 2800 “senior executive” public servants (remuneration $230,000 to $380,000 a year). State governments have commensurate staff.
The Australian prime minister enjoys about 55 personal staff, above the almost 800 in the Department of Prime Minister itself. Ministers have between 10 and 20 each and the cabinet has access to a 167,000-strong core federal public service.
Personal staffing jobs are well paid, with advisers and senior advisers (about 60 per cent of the total, most in their late 20s and 30s) taking home $160,000 to $300,000 a year once generous travel and cashed-out car allowances are factored in. No formal qualifications are required.
The cost of politicians’ staff is $235 million a year at the federal level alone.
“It surprises British MPs when they find out they are earning considerably less than even relatively junior Australian political staffers,” says John McTernan, a former senior staff member to Gillard and former British prime minister Tony Blair. The more junior assistant advisers — some in their early 20s studying part time, earn more than $115,000 a year all included.
Until Howard, these staff jobs were usually filled by public servants but, increasingly over the last decade, there has been a move away from experienced policy experts from the public sector to people appointed overwhelmingly from political parties.
“These appointments don’t necessarily have the breadth of experience required to be effective advisers on policy and the business of government as was the case previously,” said Terry Moran, secretary of Prime Minister’s Department between 2008 and 2011.
John Wanna, a professor of public administration at Australian National University, says: “Many staffers are next-generation pollies on the make and simply ‘barnacling’ themselves on to a powerful senior politician to gain points and endorsements for their subsequent preselection.”
Tim Wilson ring a bell?
The winners of elections can and do shower their political foot soldiers with largesse in the form of highly paid jobs. Ted Mack, in his 2013 Henry Parkes Oration, said: “At federal level there are now some 17 hundred personal staff to ministers and members. The states probably account for over two thousand more. Add to this the direct political infiltration of federal-state public services and quangos with hundreds more jobs for the boys and girls, there is now a well-established political class.”
Politicians exist in echo chambers surrounded by sycophants whose very careers depend on unquestioning repetition of meaningless mantras and support for policy regardless of evidence. Negotiation is seen as capitulation. Advice is unnecessary and unwanted. Positions are set dependent on that taken by the Opposition rather than on what is the best course of action – negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions are a prime example. It’s all about the marketing.
And we have an army of PR people feeding lines to tame/lazy commentators ready to tell you that anything Gillian Triggs or Ged Kearny or CSIRO scientists or International Courts have to say is a pack of political lies.
Small government? You gotta be kidding!